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History of Handmade Carpets

About twenty men are needed to carry the huge bale of carpet. “Watch out for that wall!” The room has been lavishly decorated, and they carry it carefully through the French windows into the room, making sure no damage is done to the furnishings, and position it on the floor before it is rolled out.

When it is unrolled by a team of expert fitters, they see the magnificent colours – how the pattern has been designed precisely and exclusively for this one room. The centre of the medallion lines up with the centre of the chandelier and the border is designed to go around the fireplace with the border motifs perfectly placed, returning at the centre of the carpet.

The colours harmonise with the rest of the furnishings. The deep pile whispers luxury.

They position the carpet perfectly on the heavy felt underlay, getting air under it to help move it, and then work meticulously to install it, stretching it tight with knee kickers and cutting it to shape.

This is the end of a very long process; a process which, in one way or another, has been carried out for centuries and which is one of the most rewarding furnishing experiences – the commissioning of a carpet made to special order.

Carpet weaving is one of the oldest forms of decorative textile manufacture, and one which has become painstakingly studied. Just delve into a copy of ‘Hali’ magazine and you will have a glimpse of the scholarly academic, almost obsessive, interest in old carpets and rugs, made by tribes, often nomadic (where did this piece come from? what influences created that pattern?) and used for wall-coverings, tent hangings, floor coverings and table coverings (as shown in so many ‘Old Master’ paintings).

My own interest has mostly been with European carpets and rugs, and the ability to recreate these, or to create something entirely original, often inspired by old or even new works, the re-arrangement of traditional motifs, or creating something totally abstract, using modern influences.

The first of these splendid carpets to be of interest to me were those commissioned and woven in France for the Royal Court – the Savonnerie carpets – named after the former soap (‘savon’) factory where they were first produced, and the beautiful strongly coloured ‘tapestry weave’ carpets produced in the town of Aubusson, which bear its name.

In England, hand-made carpet weaving started in earnest when a Thomas Whitty managed to spy on a small factory established by a Frenchman – Monsieur Parisot, in Fulham, using some French weavers he had almost smuggled into England (let us say they could not return to France!). Whitty went to the local ale house, sat where he could overhear conversations, befriended the father of one of the apprentices working for Parisot, and thereby gained entry to the factory. All he needed was a day, as he had been looking at Turkish carpets in some detail and had already tried to create a small piece on his own. Thomas Whitty established his factory in Axminster, so the first true ‘Axminster Carpets’ were these hand-knotted ones. Just to confuse matters further, this factory was eventually moved to Wilton, where it became known as the Wilton Royal Carpet factory. It ceased trading in hand-made carpets in 1957. A museum dedicated to these famous old carpets is still there, and with some interesting archives, although, sadly, a lot of were dispersed in 1957.

Up until this point the hand-knotted carpets available in the United Kingdom tended to be imported ‘Turkey carpets’: Those you would see as table decorations in, say, a painting by Holbein. It was Whitty who manufactured some of the best known English designed carpets created by such brilliant designers as Robert Adam and his contemporaries. These were made originally in extremely strong colours in designs that complemented all the other decorations.

Adam was known for reflecting the design of his ceilings in his carpet designs; however, you will notice that he never copied the ceiling precisely, but produced a design that reflected some elements and harmonised perfectly with it.

There is something very masculine about most of Adam’s designs, which seems to make them less commercial than the more feminine Savonnerie and Aubusson designs.

Special carpets were created by Adam for stately homes and mansions. Many carpets were also produced for Adam by Thomas Moore, who was more expensive than Whitty, but a close friend. Whitty used female labour to get a competitive edge, and the first ladies he used were his family – wife and daughters!

Thomas Whitty made the original carpets for The Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The Music Room carpet was made in a strong blue background colour with fantastical beasts and stars floating on it. Queen Victoria had the carpet removed, bleached and cut up to use in a guest room in Buckingham Palace, as she considered it extremely decadent.

As well as the English and French production there were a number of active factories in Europe – in Spain, Germany and Austria. The Gynskey factory almost disappeared after the Second World War, as a change of borders brought it into what was then Czechoslovakia. The factory was considered to be a symbol of capitalistic decadence, and sadly many records were destroyed.

A factory which became active in the early part of the twentieth century was The Donegal Carpet Company in the north of Eire. The weaving tradition here was thought to have been a by-product of the wreckage of the Spanish Armada – some galleons foundered on the rocks off the Donegal coast and the Spanish influence is believed to have started much of the interest in textiles here. The looms, cropping machine and many design archives from the Wilton Royal factory found their way to Donegal when Wilton Royal closed their hand-knotted production in 1957. Donegal Carpets got into some difficulties towards the end of the last century and closed down their famous factory, with only a small craft weaving unit remaining.

Thus a considerable number of hand-knotted carpets were created to special order through many important designers, some of whom have become bookmarks in the history of carpet design: Adam, Wyatt, Voysey, Mackintosh, William Morris, Marion Dorn and the beautiful Art Deco carpets commissioned for this strong style. Stunning carpets were designed for ocean-going liners, cinemas, clubs, livery halls and corporate head offices.

Today, we have carpets created for palaces, superyachts (and what are now defined as Megayachts!), villas, mansions (with carpets tailored for winding staircases, border designs being adjusted for each stair), penthouses and modern offices, homes for the discerning, and re-creations of old pieces that have worn out. We have carpets for our embassies and government buildings, for private aircraft and even for cars.

Most of the modern hand-made carpets that are designed to special order today are made by the hand-tufting process. This would appear to have originated as a modification of ‘hooked rugs’ often made by families for their own use, in the USA, in the early part of the last century. Ways of speeding up the process were devised, and developed into the more sophisticated tufting gun which is the woollen paintbrush to the ‘paint it by numbers’ tensioned canvas over a tufting frame at the factory.

These hand-tufted carpets are manufactured all over the world – a natural development from the ‘hooked rugs’ created in a number of factories in the USA, one of which was manufactured in Puerto Rico and then expanded into Eire. A number of the earlier factories spawned competitors – this is also true of some larger factories in the Far East, established initially to give work to Chinese in the Hong Kong New Territories, then expanding into Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. There are a number of small factories in Europe, and several larger ones in China and India. I do not attach a great deal of importance to where a factory is located; the quality produced by all these factories varies substantially, with some mediocre product coming out of European ‘ateliers’ and some top quality ones coming out of Eastern factories. The ability of the manager and his team to carry out the instructions given to him, and an ability to ensure that the best possible materials are used, is the main factor in creating a quality product from the artwork provided.

I personally consider the quality of artwork and draughtsmanship to be one of the most important contributions to a hand-made carpet or rug. But sadly there are a great deal of mediocre products created for this market place that disguise badly drawn motifs by use of subtle colourings. It is the quality of draughtsmanship that makes a museum piece in any decorative art form, and in my own studio we even draw the whole carpet design out prior to manufacture (which is what they did at the original Savonnerie factory) to ensure the designer’s ‘hand’ is reproduced faithfully in the finished work.

Carpets today can often be made with many different types of natural yarn – wool, silk, cotton and even linen. Some of these are more resilient than others, so it is worth checking how they will wear or flatten down.

It is important to look closely at the ‘feel’ of the quality (yarns vary considerably and can be blends of New Zealand, the most widely accepted yarn, and local ones). Also one must look at the way designs are reproduced. Do they flow correctly or are they crude and clumsy?

It is important to look around, and often best not to choose the least expensive. But when you do decide to commission a carpet or rug, you are starting on an exciting and thoroughly rewarding adventure culminating in enjoyment for years and years.